Flying low over Cairns the town is tiny, hardly what I expected for the home of one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Vast fields of sugar cane carpeted from the foot of the Great Dividing Range right up to the sandy boarder of the ocean. Agriculture versus the outward sprawl of suburbanisation.
It’s incredibly dusty. Every building wheezing, run down breaths. No matter how fresh the paint, walls are clogged brown. Well into the tropics, Cairns is a town that feels more inappropriately adapted to the elements than anywhere else I’ve visited; buildings baking under a tropical sun, no shady tree lined streets, militarily grid street layout for wet season rains to torrent down.
Despite the envious views of my hostel room (Jazz Cairns – $19pn 12 bed dorm), straight onto the bay, I would not recommend staying under its hostile roof. I found a single friendly face there, who that night lead me, laden with drinks tokens, away from the glitzy ocean front bars and restaurants to P.J.O’briens, a backpacker pub that night. I wanted to be tucked up in bed at 9pm ready for my 5am skydive, but with free flowing prosecco that was an un-realistic goal. We stumbled home at 2am.
Sitting on the curb at 4.45am, throwing myself from a plane was probably the only cure for my hangover. A throbbing head masking the stomach churning nerves I’d been expecting it wasn’t until the instructional video that the adrenaline finally started pumping, bringing me back from the brink of zombie-hood. I still wasn’t afraid, just excited, and impatient to get into the plane.
8 of us with our instructors squeezed into the belly of a tiny plane coated with dust like everything else in Cairns. A huge effort pulled us into the sky and as we climbed Grant (my tandem) double and triple checked my life lines and explained red light, we’re at altitude, green, we go. The red light blinked. I pulled my glasses on. The flimsy door was rolled open. The green light blinked. The first pair were gone, sucked vulnerably out of sight instantly.
The nerves still hadn’t kicked in. Grant shuffled me forwards and my legs involuntarily braced each side of the door. I couldn’t make them to move. Grant had to physically push them out for me to curl under the planes belly. He forced my head upwards, looking into the gopro on his wrist. And we fell.
My palms are sweaty just recalling the feeling when we lost contact with the plane. Accelerating towards terminal velocity, falling in every direction; upside down, sideways, head first. I had never regretted anything more in my life. I was going to die of fear, even if our parachute opened up. I couldn’t even scream; the air speed whipped any sound from my dry mouth. I certainly wasn’t hung over anymore.
We reached terminal velocity and Grant had righted us, it felt like we were floating. Weightless and still, I watched the sun rising over the Coral Sea, burning off the mist cloaking the mountains. The only indication of our continual plummet towards the ground was how difficult it was to close my desert dry mouth.
It was all over too quickly, Grant pulled the chord and I braced myself for the abrupt deceleration but it wasn’t painful. Gliding towards the ground and he let me have an unsuccessful go at steering the parachute. I lifted my legs as high as I could as he guided us in to land bang in the centre of a mist hazed clearing in the sugar cane. Like an addict I craved the adrenaline hit again immediately, if I’d had the money I’d have gone right back up that same day! But I settled for re-watching the GoPro film of the fall I’d got with the dive for $440.
The Great Barrier Reef with Divers Den
I boarded Reef Quest at 8am, along with about 30 other people. It wasn’t the personal experience I’ve grown used to diving in Thailand and Exmouth but the huge boat absorbed us all easily and it didn’t feel crowded. Most people were snorkelling at the site but the 12 or so of us scuba diving were taken upstairs for a private dive briefing with the Divers Den crew.
For $210 (through Peter Pan’s) I got half a day on the boat with lunch and 2 certified dives, what was not included was a guide. They were happy to send freshly qualified Open Water pairs into the coral maze together, just 4 dives under their belt. In my opinion, a stupid thing to do. Even after 25 dives I don’t feel remotely confident in my navigation abilities, in my so I forked out another $15 per dive for a guide. My opinion was proved right when all the divers who went down in buddy pairs got lost and had to surface early.
16m was as deep as it got, as with Ningaloo, fringing reefs really aren’t that deep, and the first few meters of ocean are the most abundant with life anyway. John, our guide, hunted out colour in abundance for us; bright orange saddle back clown fish, electric blue tang, danger yellow puffer fish, neon nudibranches. However it was impossible to miss the lack of colour in the coral of the reef. The white wash of the bleaching was stark and fragments of coral littered the floor in heaps like I’ve seen nowhere else. Whether this was from the coral being so damaged it fragmented or people standing on the reef and snapping pieces off (a spotter on the top deck did his best to discourage this and shame anyone he saw clambering on the coral, but people still frequently did). The simple fact of being kitted out and underwater is still novel enough for me to make the most boring dive site fun, but the Great Barrier Reef dives were definitely tainted by what I saw beneath the waves; breaking my heart.
Diving the Great Barrier Reef is inspiring in that it makes you want to live your life in a way that causes less damage to the environment. But if you are looking for a beautiful reef full of unexpected treasures and complexly beautiful topography, Ningaloo is the place for you, not this ghost of a reef.
My money coming to an end I couldn’t afford anymore of Cairns’ thrill seeking; two days of parachutes and scuba tanks would have to be enough adrenaline for me. Instead, over my next couple of days I pursued the adventures in-land; chasing waterfalls, hunting glassey eyed crocs and sunrises on deserted beaches. To be continued….